Bizzy's is a Booze-Free Bar for Oakland's Sober Nightlife Crowd

Black Spring Coffee owner Ryan Stark, Bizzy's Dry Bar founders Jesska Hughes and Michelle Hill, and Bizzy's staffers Lourdes Benavente and Mary Davis (left to right). (Nastia Voynovskaya)

A booze-free bar might sound like a contradiction, but there's a growing audience for late-night hangout spots that don't revolve around alcohol.

Whether in substance recovery, not drinking because of a health condition or taking a break for "Dry January," a growing number of Americans are "sober curious," a movement that's spreading through social media. New research that shows that even a month-long break from booze has considerable health benefits, including weight loss and better sleep.

Jesska Hughes and Michelle Hill are capitalizing on this momentum with their new "dry bar," Bizzy's, which opens on Jan. 18 and will operate at night, 6pm–midnight, Thursday through Monday, out of the popular Oakland coffee shop Black Spring Coffee, which will keep its regular 7am–4pm hours during the day.

Two drinks and a coaster that says "Bizzy's Dry Bar."
Bizzy's menu features a variety of mocktails, booze-free wine and beer and spicy juice shots with ginger and turmeric. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Hughes, Hill and Black Spring owner Ryan Stark all met in the Bay Area's punk and DIY scene; Stark was never a drinker, and Hughes and Hill turned away from booze as they got older and decided to reevaluate their relationship to alcohol. While nightlife is an important realm for artists, musicians and other creative people to connect, the trio says those bonds can be fostered without alcohol.

"I feel like every time I go to a show, there's one more person who's like, 'I stopped drinking,'" says Hill. "The ranks are continuing to increase. And that's for all varieties of reasons: some people are in recovery, some aren't."

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"I think there's the harm reduction aspect of it also," adds Hughes, referencing the growing popularity of Dry January—and other months that people have been taking as an excuse to not drink, like Sober October and Dry July. "January's a perfect time to check in with yourself about it. Do I still enjoy drinking? Am I drinking because I have social anxiety? Am I drinking because I'm used to drinking all the time and that's what I do? Am I drinking because my friends drink? Just checking in and being like, 'where do I stand with my substance use?'"

Sober bars have already opened in Austin and New York. But the East Bay has few late-night hangout options for non-drinkers—Berkeley's UC campus-area cafe Au Coquelet is open until 1:30am, but isn't much of a social scene, with bright lights and students engrossed in late-night study sessions on their laptops. And Gaylord's in Oakland stays open until midnight, serving coffee, tea and pastries.

But Bizzy's isn't a cafe. Their menu, developed with the help of staff member Lourdes Benvante, has specialty mocktails like the spicy mojito, cocktails made with booze-free gin and whiskey, non-alcoholic beers and wines and spicy juice shots with ingredients like ginger and turmeric for that throat-burning sensation.

When I visit on a recent evening, the Bizzy's crew shows off the recently installed booths at Black Spring, and tells me that there'll be dimmed lighting to give the coffee shop a more bar-like look for nighttime. As business picks up, Hughes and Hill tell me, they want to have staple bar events like DJ nights, karaoke and trivia.

The Bizzy's crew recently outfitted Black Spring Coffee with new booths to give it a more bar-like ambiance. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

The news about Bizzy's is already spreading through word of mouth in the sober community. Joy DaMert, an Oakland musician who quit drinking two years ago, heard about the project through friends and is planning an outing to Bizzy's on opening night.

"I think people are looking for community over the consumption of alcohol, and people want an experience, and that’s why they go out to bars," says DaMert. "People are realizing you don’t need to be drinking in order to have those communal experiences."

"Having a good time without alcohol—it’s possible, it’s beyond possible!" DaMert adds. "It'll be cute to see it in action, try some of their drinks and bring my crazy sober friends."

The opening night of Bizzy's is just a day after the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, which started on Jan. 17, 1920—but Hill and Hughes say that's a complete coincidence. "We're not gonna be that dogmatic," Hill laughs.

"We're more about—drink if you want to, harm reduction. You could drink or you could come here, you could do whatever," says Hughes. "You have an option now."